Heading into Friday’s high school football quarterfinals, Waverly was playing as well as anyone in Class B. The sixth-seeded Vikings rode a six-game winning streak into Friday night’s match-up against no. 3 Elkhorn including shutout wins over other quarterfinalists Plattsmouth (36-0) and Norris (24-0).
The Antlers put a halt to all that momentum, however, dominating from start to finish in a 41-16 blowout that wasn’t even as close as the final score might indicate.
“It feels great because Waverly was on a roll,” Elkhorn coach Mark Wortman said. “They had beaten Norris and they won, what, six in a row or whatever it was? Waverly is one of the best teams in the state — we knew that. I think we are just gradually getting better and better and our execution is picking up a little bit. We’ve got some things to work on, but I like where we are right now.”
The run-heavy Vikings were averaging 275.5 rushing yards par game on 6.5 yards per carry through their first 10 games. On Friday, the Elkhorn front seven — led by 280-pound sophomore defensive tackle Aiden Betz and senior inside linebacker Isaac Robinson up the middle — controlled the line of scrimmage all night and limited Waverly to 95 yards on 32 carries (3.0 yards per carry).
The Vikings didn’t have any more success through the air as starting quarterback Cole Murray completed 8-of-16 passes for 53 yards and two interceptions. He was just 2-of-7 for 6 yards and a pick in the first half.
“The defense didn’t give them much,” Wortman said. “There were very few creases. They are a power running team and they didn’t have a lot of room … The defensive effort was super. Our linebackers were playing well, defensive backs, it was a good team effort.”
Waverly did a great job of limiting Elkhorn’s ground game with its primary backs as well — holding senior Aiden Young and junior Braylon Johnson to a combined 51 yards on 24 carries — but the Antlers made some big plays through the air despite a stiff wind blowing all night.
Elkhorn set the tone from the opening drive, marching down the field for a touchdown and a 6-0 lead thanks to a missed extra point.
After quarterback Grant Gutschow’s first pass got broken up, he completed three in a row — including a 29-yard toss to Gannon Gragert on third and 8 — to put the Antlers into scoring range. The Vikings tackled Young 2 yards shy of the first-down marker and 3 yards shy of the goal line on third down, but Elkhorn went for it on fourth down and Young walked into the end zone untouched.
“The first drive is always important, so we mixed in a few runs and a few passes and then obviously our receivers with Gannon Gragert and Drew Christo, you throw it up and they’re going to get it,” Wortman said. “Our offensive line played well and it was a good, consistent offensive effort.”
Things slowed down from there as the next three drives ended in punts. It looked like that streak would extend to four as Elkhorn faced fourth and 10 from its own 42-yard line at the end of the first quarter. Gragert, who serves as the team’s punter as well as starting at wide receiver and outside linebacker, received the ball from the long snapper and slowly started approaching the line of scrimmage. With no one in front of him, he took off toward the right sideline and picked up 22 yards to move the chains.
“The punt before, I think they had like two guys take out our hover guy on the outside, so I kind of just read it,” Gragert said. “I knew right away I was going to try to run it, but I didn’t know if I was going to have to get a kick off at the last second. I just kept it, lowered my shoulder and got the first down.”
After a 4-yard gain from Young, Gutschow took a shot deep to Gragert. He under-threw it, but Gragert came back to the ball and hauled it in then crossed the goal line for a 32-yard touchdown as the corner covering him lost track of the ball.
A deflection led to an interception for the Waverly defense at the 1-yard line on Elkhorn’s next possession, ending a promising drive, but the Antler defense forced a three-and-out and a quick punt, setting the offense up with a short field. Elkhorn kept it on the ground for nine straight plays until Hayden Stec finished it off with a 3-yard touchdown to give the Antlers a 20-0 lead just before halftime.
Gragert totaled 146 yards from scrimmage on his own in the first half, nearly three times Waverly’s yardage total.
The Elkhorn defense didn’t relax any at halftime. On the first drive, a holding penalty knocked the Vikings backwards and set up a third-and-17. Murray dropped back to pass but Betz broke through the line and got in the quarterback’s face as he released the ball. Stec ran under the lofting pass and picked it off, running it back to the 16-yard line.
Waverly tackled Young behind the line for a loss of 4, but Gutschow hit Gragert for a 20-yard touchdown on the next play, making it 27-0. A Waverly three-and-out followed by a four-play, 50-yard touchdown drive made it 34-0. Stec accounted for 49 of the 50 yards and the score.
Waverly finally found the end zone on its next drive as senior Zane Schawang capped off an 87-yard drive with a touchdown from the half-yard line, but Elkhorn answered with another touchdown drive to make it 41-7.
The Vikings tacked on nine more point late with a safety and a touchdown after Elkhorn had pulled its starters.
Gutschow completed all four of his second-half passes and finished 11-of-18 for 244 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Gragert caught six passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns in addition to the 22-yard run on the fake punt. Christo, a Nebraska baseball commit, caught three passes for 58 yards.
“It helps that they’re 6-4, 6-5,” Gutschow said about his receivers. “I just try to put it as high as possible, let the ball come down and let them jump for it.”
Stec added five carries for 56 yards and two touchdowns plus two receptions on swing passes for 42 yards.
Next up for the Antlers is a trip to Hastings as the second-seeded Tigers held off a furious rally by No. 10 Grand Island Northwest, kicking a 25-yard field goal with 16 seconds left to seal a 45-42 win. The winner punches its ticket to the Class B final.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.